Friday, April 22, 2011

Good Main Characters Begin as Reluctant Heroes

It is a typical trapping of traditional story structure that seems so obvious, as if including it in your story would make it hackneyed and rote -- but the fact that the hero is most often reluctant at the beginning of a story, that he refuses the call to action, was brought home to me last night during a writers group I participate in. One of the writers had turned in pages of a screenplay for critique, wherein the main character wholeheartedly, without any qualms, jumps into a very dangerous situation. It just didn’t come off as realistic. Sure, the script was an action-thriller, but it didn’t read as truthful. It was just too easy for the main character to make the transition from the ordinary world to that of the adventure of the second act. There weren’t any obstacles, and there wasn’t any second-guessing on the part of the main character.

I guess the best way to understand how important it is to create main characters who are reluctant at the top of a story is by comprehending how we react in real life. We are creatures of habit. Very few of us are interested in rattling our cages very often. We don’t like change much. And even myself, as the sort of person who used to love heaps of drama in my life and rather destructive excitement, I pretty much obeyed certain character rules. What I mean by this is that it was pretty predictable how I would react to any given situation, and if one would have been writing the story of my life, there would have had to have been some inciting incident that would have SHAKEN UP my current situation, pushing me to react in a way that wasn’t typical.

This is what story is – or at least good stories that work and are dramatic and keep the reader reading. These are stories in which a main character, who has predictable behavior patterns, is suddenly pushed to change, to do something extraordinary, to enter a world or just a situation that is very different than what he is used to and which he is quite uncomfortable in, and thus this is what forces him to get over his flaw by the end of the book or movie. Or at least it should.

So how do we act in real life? If I am a fearful person, and so the most important, most dramatic turning point in my life would be one in which I am pushed to be courageous, then my journey is going to include some kind of adventure that will force me to confront my fears, not eschew them. And therefore, wouldn’t I be ambivalent about embarking on that kind of journey?

Or if I am a greedy, mean person with a small heart… The most important journey of my life – the one that people will pay $15 to dedicate a couple of hours of their busy lives to see – is the one in which I am going to be forced to become generous, loving and open-hearted.

On the same token, if I am stuck in my life, I am a total loser who is scared of love because I’ve had my heart shattered to pieces, aren’t I going to have some hang-ups about getting involved with this new wonderful person who’s just entered my life – this person who is going to coax me into opening my heart again? (I’m thinking Sideways here.)

I guess what I am trying to say – and trust me, I struggle with this myself, with my own writing – is that it is really important to create a realistic hero for your story, who does not simply jump into the action of the second act, because that is not the way we predictably act.

That is why we, as writers, are forced to create the desperate circumstances that push our hero out of his comfort zone into action. I recall something I read in Neill D. Hicks’ Screenwriting 101 called “Characters’ Minimum Action.”

Characters don’t instinctively make dramatic decisions. Like everyday humans, characters take the minimum action necessary so as not to risk betrayal of their internal need [Ed.: flaw].

Hicks goes on to ask us to imagine a bashful, reserved accountant, who has just purchased a new home. On the first night in his new home, he discovers a large dog next door that barks loudly, making it impossible for him to sleep. What action is the accountant going to chose to remedy his situation?

Obviously he is not going to confront his neighbors, as that is not in line with what kind of person he is: bashful and reserved. This main character is only going to make a dramatic decision if he is pushed to do so – way out of his comfort zone. Maybe things get so bad at work, his wife divorces him and he wrecks his brand-new car. Maybe all these things together might be what might finally drive the accountant to action.

I’ll end on this note: If you do create a hero who jumps into action without a second thought, and you are not looking to create a tent-pole-type movie that has no character arc and will be seen as, yes, full of action, but totally idiotic from the perspective of story, then I suggest your main character be punished for acting in such a manner, meaning that perhaps being oblivious to danger, or hubristic, is the main character’s flaw. Therefore, when he just leaps into a dangerous situation, he is punished for doing so – and then pushed into a new situation in which he is forced to confront what is wrong about himself. Good stories are those in which characters are confronted with their flaws and FORCED to change. We’re all flawed, sure, but any psychologist will explain that a lot of times we cling onto these flaws because we do actually get something good out of them. For the character who pushes away love, she gains never being hurt. For the character who is a drunk, he gains never having to confront his problems or past. For the character who steals, she gains never having to work hard. I guess the point I’m trying to make is that we don’t like change, so it is most realistic that we would act reluctantly when confronted with a call to adventure that will place us out of our comfort zone. And, in my opinion, the best action-adventure heroes – the kind who would confront danger without a care – they had better have some other very deep and twisted flaw, or your hero will come off as one-dimensional and rote.


  1. Wonderful post. And a great reminder about the reluctant hero. The hero who doubts is much more believable and identifiable, and one we'll gladly follow when events finally push him into action.

  2. Thanks for your comment, L.G. I really appreciate you reading my blog!